China announced that its military intercepted a missile in mid-flight Monday in a test of new technology that comes amid heightened tensions over Taiwan and increased willingness by the Asian giant to show off its advanced military capabilities.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported late Monday that "ground-based midcourse missile interception technology" was tested within Chinese territory.
"The test has achieved the expected objective," the three-sentence report said. "The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country."
Monday's report follows repeated complaints in recent days by Beijing over the sale by the U.S. of weaponry to Taiwan, including PAC-3 air defense missiles. These sales are driven by threats from China to use force to bring the island under its control, backed up by an estimated 1,300 Chinese ballistic missiles positioned along the Taiwan Strait.
Communist-ruled China split with Taiwan amid civil war in 1949 and continues to regard the self-governing democracy as part of its territory. Beijing has warned of a disruption in ties with Washington if the sale goes ahead, but has not said what specific actions it would take.
In Washington, the U.S. Defense Department said it had no notice before the Chinese test but that the United States does not consider it related to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
"We did not receive prior notification of the launch," Maj. Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. "We detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exo-atmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors. We are requesting information from China regarding the purpose for conducting this interception as well as China's intentions and plans to pursue future types of intercepts."
China's military is in the middle of a major technology upgrade, spurred on by double-digit annual percentage increases in defense spending. Missile technology is considered one of the People's Liberation Army's particular strengths, allowing it to narrow the gap with the U.S. and other militaries that wield stronger conventional forces.
Xinhua did not further identify the system tested, although China is believed to be pursuing a number of programs developed from anti-aircraft systems aimed at shooting down stealth aircraft and downing or disabling cruise missiles and precision-guided weapons.
Such programs are shrouded in secrecy, but military analysts say China appears to have augmented its air defenses with homemade technologies adapted from Russian and other foreign weaponry. China purchased a large number of Russian surface-to-air missiles during the 1990s and has since pressed ahead with its own HQ-9 interceptor, along with a more advanced missile system with an extended range.
Foreign media reports in 2006 said Beijing had tested a surface-to-air missile in the country's remote northwest with capabilities similar to the American Patriot interceptor system. According to South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, the test involved the detection and downing of both a reconnaissance drone and an incoming ballistic missile by an interceptor, adding that it appeared to mark the official launch of China's indigenous interceptor unit.
"There is an obvious concern in Beijing that they need an effective anti-ballistic missile defense in some form," said Hans Kristensen, an expert on the Chinese military with the Federation of American Scientists.
Staging a successful test "shows that their technology is maturing," Kristensen said.
The 2009 Pentagon report on China's military says the air force received eight battalions of upgraded Russian SA-20 PMU-2 surface-to-air missiles since 2006, with another eight on order. The missiles have a range of 125 miles (200 kilometers) and reportedly provide limited ballistic and cruise missile defense capabilities.
Such interceptor missiles are believed to be deployed near major cities and strategic sites such as the massive Three Gorges Dam, but they could also be used to protect China's own ballistic missile batteries that would themselves become targets in any regional conflict.
Such interceptors would be of relatively little use against U.S. cruise missiles, although they could be effective against ballistic missiles deployed by Russia or India, China's massive neighbor to the south with which it has a growing military rivalry and lingering territorial disputes.
Monday's report continues a growing trend of greater transparency over China's new military technologies typified by last year's striking Oct. 1 military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state. Large numbers of missiles were displayed in the show, including ICBMs, together with tanks, amphibious craft and latest-generation jet fighters.
China's anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles — capable of striking U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and bases in the Pacific — have drawn the most attention from analysts in recent months.
Military displays and announcements of successful tests help build public pride in the military's rising capabilities and bolster support for rising defense spending that increased by almost 15 percent last year to $71 billion. The figure is thought by many analysts to represent only a portion of total defense spending, although it still amounts to only a fraction of the U.S. military budget.
Meanwhile, showing off such capabilities also helps put adversaries on notice, Kristensen said.
"It's the new Chinese way to signal that they are now able to do these things," he said.
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